Creative Thinking (aka Thinking Outside the Box)

We seem to hear a lot these days about the need for “creative thinking,” or what I still prefer to call “thinking outside the box.” But how often do we really engage in it, pay attention to it … or perhaps even really recognize it?

Sometimes I think we acknowledge that it’s a good idea, but more often I think we tend to view the idea with a bit of skepticism – is it really worth my time?
And that’s too bad, because when it comes to marinas, as with most worthwhile endeavors, taking some time to think outside the box can benefit just about all facets of one’s facility.

Continuing to do things the same way can easily lead to stagnation and, worse, allowing the competition to move out so far ahead of you that it is hard to catch up, not to mention get ahead.

Fortunately, there are any number of avenues we can take that lead to creative thinking, whether talking and encouraging innovation with employees; talking with customers and getting to understand their perceptions, desires, and suggestions; setting a time to assess one’s goals and operations; or, of course, talking with outside consultants – which can most always provide some eye openers!

Sign up for the Marina Dock Age newsletter.Our newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive content covering the marina and boatyard industry, new products, and much more.

All businesses have various requirements resulting in mandatory costs, many of them are regulatory driven, some are maintenance to continue to provide services, and others come out of left field – such as equipment dying or storm damage, etc.

Fostering creative thinking can lead to cost-effective changes that result in decreased costs, providing the service on a faster basis, or adding better or new income streams. All are certainly desirable outcomes.

The Value of Employees
Employees can be a real source of cost savings and/or revenue enhancements if they are given the opportunity. They know what has to be done and how they have been doing it – and often have ideas of how to do it in a manner that would add more to the bottom line. It could be using a new machine, or a change of approach. One of the secrets is empowerment to not only allow but also to encourage your employees to come up with ideas and feel comfortable enough to talk about it. In one case there was a tool for hull repairs that would save time and provide a better finished product. While it would cost money, the payback would be in 18 months. The time taken to undertake the process would be cut 28% and the quality of the product would be enhanced. Basically a no brainer. In another case it was suggested that a more efficient approach to inventory control be implemented, which cut down time looking for spare parts on hand. No one knows your operations better than your employees – empowering them to feel part of the team is a key element. If combined with an incentive system it can also improve their bottom line.

Budgeting for Equipment
Every facility has both a capital and maintenance budget – some more formalized than others. One of the more cost-effective approaches is to think about where money is being spent in maintenance and whether there is a better approach to be more cost effective in terms of improving the equipment or layout of the facility. Some machines are beyond their useful life and the amount of money being put into maintenance annually is increasing, while a replacement approach can have a two to four year payback combined with doing the tasks with a more efficient machine that uses less energy and can accomplish more than the old machine. Again, a meaningful opportunity.

Many machines, whether in your yard, shop or office, have maintenance agreements that tend to become more expensive as the equipment ages. It’s not all that uncommon for the cost of running the old machine to exceed the cost of its replacement. But many never stop to think, should we replace it now or wait.

Continuing to look at new and improved products that equipment suppliers are coming out with can also be meaningful in this line of thinking. Some of these may involve improvements to their equipment, while others may involve having come up with a better way of addressing a problem, or entirely new entries that can open your eyes to solving issues that you had not really thought about. It’s a happy coincidence that this issue happens to be the annual Buyer’s Guide. Take the time to really look through it at all the new and enhanced products for marinas – you might just be surprised and/or inspired by the offerings. And keep in mind that you also might just be able to help your suppliers think outside the box by talking with and challenging them to create new or find ways to improve aspects of their existing products that would help your operations. It can be rewarding to all involved.

Enlisting Professional Expertise
In so many cases an outside pair of eyes can help identify areas for improvement. An example in the design/layout area involved working out a plan to accommodate some larger boats without redesigning or replacing the entire marina. The facility had several main piers that extended perpendicular to the harbor’s main navigation channel, with boats and fingers on either side of the mains. By cutting the main piers back, and then inserting wider “T’s” and longer fingers perpendicular to the channel, the marina was able to use the main channel as the turning fairway to accommodate the larger boats, while using its remaining docks to accommodate their existing fleet.

Another “aha” moment came where a facility was looking to add a floating wave attenuator to further protect the marina from waves. Since room allowed, it was suggested that the expense of the wave attenuator could in part be offset by moving it a bit farther seaward, thereby making it a revenue enhancer by allowing bigger boats to moor broadside to the leeward side of the attenuator.

And whenever you need to get regulatory approvals involving your in-water layout, it is worth trying to set up a formal “reconfiguration perimeter,” which many regulatory agencies are receptive to and which DSN&A was instrumental in having incorporated into the US Army Corps of Engineers regulations as well as many state and local regulations. So in this case thinking outside the box involves essentially establishing a box that then allows you the long-term flexibility to rearrange your docking facilities within the perimeter of the facility – similar to moving furniture around within a room. It can save much time and expense down the road.

Anticipating Disasters
When tragedy strikes in terms of a storm, fire or other catastrophic event, the immediate reaction is to see how fast one can rebuild. In the face of such a calamity, it can be difficult to take a deep breath, look at the issues, and determine how to improve what was previously there – not just restore it. Most facilities have given at least some thought to expansions, reconfigurations and changes to accommodate the changes in boats to wider and deeper drafts.

The overwhelming majority of marinas in developed countries are more than 30 years old and most have never made any major changes. Taking a pause to think about how to improve the facility can take the disaster and turn it into an opportunity. Such approaches can reap significant rewards for years to come. Agencies tend to be sympathetic to those faced with disaster issues and usually are willing to help try to speed up the process of approvals. And the insurance monies help fund the improvements and shorten the payback period.

Another approach to consider when major storm damage has occurred, or for most any large project that involves multiple areas of construction expertise (and where you have a good manager), can be to break up the scope of work, bidding out the project to allow contractors to bid on all of the various components separately as well as in total. This allows for major elements, such as for the fixed piers, floating docks, concrete work, etc., to be awarded to those most qualified and/or having the lowest prices. In the project that I have in mind, breaking up the scope after the hurricane hit ended up saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by allowing contactors to provide pricing for the work they really wanted to do and not for that which they were less eager and/or qualified to undertake, thereby getting the best quality work from each specialty at the best prices.

Look Outside the Industry
Another way to see things a bit differently is to take a look at other industries. If you’ve been reading my column for some time, you might have noticed that I often refer to the auto, airlines, hotel, and skiing industries. So maybe it means taking a quick break from boats to check out what’s happening in SIN (that would be Snow Industry News). There you might just find that the article on Aspen Resorts implementing a new contactless food and beverage ordering/payment app is either just what you need or the spark for an idea that works for you….or the review of the company practices and employee benefits that led Vail Resorts to make the FORBES American Best-In-State Employers to work for list has relevance to your operation. Or perhaps a read of how zoos and aquariums have pivoted from “collection” to “conservation” models in WAZA News (World Association of Zoos & Aquariums) might influence your own PR messaging on being a good steward for the oceans. It’s not that every time you go looking you are going to find something relatable, or some eureka moment, but the more you look beyond the sometimes insular world the more chance for those moments to happen.

Similarly, when speaking with your customers, don’t just talk about boats, what they like about your facility, and other things nautical – all of which is incredibly important, and already a source for creative thinking – but go further and maybe ask about the vacation they went on, what movies they’ve seen, what restaurants they like (or hate) in town, how is their day job going, and so on. In addition to better knowing and understanding your customers, you never know when these types of conversations will provide the inspiration for something to make your facility better in some way, shape or form. Could be that “movies” + “vacation” = “outdoor movies by the pool on a cruise ship” = why don’t we try doing an outdoor movie night at the marina!

No Limits
In point of fact, there is no limit to thinking outside the box if you really want to. There is also no one person who necessarily can come up with all of the ideas. So the more people you can add to your creative thinking team, the better – even if many of your team members will likely never know they were on it. And of course once you have those creative new ideas, it’s time to put your critical thinking cap back on to turn them into reality, while keeping your mind open to whatever creative solutions may come up along the way. “Creative” + “Critical” thinking = “C&C” = maybe it’s time for a drink, or a sail – or better yet, both!
Happy thinking.

Dan Natchez is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES Inc., a leading international environmental waterfront design consulting company specializing in the design of marinas and marina resorts throughout the world. He invites your comments and inquiries by phone at 914/698-5678, by fax at 914/698-7321, or by email at